JESSICA IRVINE June 29, 2012
Illustration: Simon Letch
Australia's relative economic prosperity and low jobless rate have transformed us into a destination of choice for economic migrants and refugees alike. If you think that's a problem, let me set you straight.
One in four Australians alive today was born overseas, according to the latest census results. In Sydney, it's one in three. Migration has not only contributed to Australia's economic success over the years but is the cornerstone of the brilliantly vibrant and diverse cultures in our local communities that are rarely reflected in our national debates.
While other advanced nations struggle to attract workers to their recession-ridden economies, Australia stands out as a country experiencing above-average migration growth, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's ''International Migration Outlook'', released this week.
Problem? Far from it.
''[The] positive role of migration in maintaining the size of the labour force in many countries is expected to become more important as more baby boomers retire,'' the report states. ''By 2015, immigration - at the current level - will not be sufficient to maintain the working-age population in many OECD countries, especially in the European Union.''
One of the defining global narratives of the coming decades will be the struggle of ageing nations to rejuvenate their populations and provide for the needs of their elderly. But here in Australia we force young, willing hands in nearby countries to board leaky boats to take their chances in a cruel sea. That is not only morally shameful, it's economically stupid.
Figures from the same OECD report prove decisively that job gains for migrants do not come at the expense of existing Australians.
Across the first half of the noughties, the employment-to-population ratio for foreign-born Australian men averaged 73.2 per cent. The average for native-born Australian men was substantially higher, at 78.8 per cent.
In the second half, this gap shrank. The average employment-to-population ratio for foreign-born men advanced to 76.3 per cent. But this did not come at the expense of the native-born, who saw their ratio also increase, to 80 per cent.
Because, for all the focus on asylum seekers, Australia's overall migration program is heavily focused on filling existing skills shortages and, hence, is skewed towards younger working people. Australia's total migration and humanitarian intake was 182,500 people last financial year. Of these, most - 92 per cent - came from the migration program.
Just 8 per cent, or 13,799 visas, were granted under the humanitarian program. Of these, most - 8971 - were granted to people seeking asylum from an offshore location. The number granted to people who had made their way to Australia first, by boat or plane, was 4828.
Australia's refugee intake is not only small compared to its total migration intake, but also compared to the number of people who would like to seek asylum here. Australia received 54,396 offshore applications for humanitarian visas last year, meaning for every successful one, five others went unanswered.
Is it any surprise people get on boats? With such an undersupply of places relative to demand, a black market in people smuggling is the only natural result.
It seems distasteful, somehow, to apply an economic framework to a such a morally charged policy issue as asylum seekers. It is governments, after all, not markets, that decide the supply of migration places.
But people smugglers are a good example of the economic phenomenon of black markets. Black markets for products and services spring up where supply in legitimate markets is overly restricted. Just as alcohol prohibition in the US forced up the price of booze and fuelled criminal activity in the 1920s and '30s, a shortage of humanitarian visas to Australia has encouraged people smuggling. People smugglers are today's bootleggers, with tragic consequences.
The evidence shows, after all, that most people who arrive unlawfully by boat are eventually settled in Australia on protection visas - 83.3 per cent of the ''irregular maritime arrivals'' in 2009-10, according to the latest figures from the Department of Immigration.
By far the best way to smash the people smugglers' business model would be to expand the legal market for seeking asylum. It's time to accept there is a constant, and even increasing, demand by people to seek asylum in Australia.
If we want to stop the boats, the best way might be to fire up the 747 turbo engines and simply fly people here, legally and safely, in the first place. If we want to deter desperate people from making a treacherous journey, let's make it known in international refugee processing centres around the world: there is an easier path to Australia and an open door on arrival for those who follow it.
Sound radical? Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this week's debate on asylum seekers is that there is, in fact, tri-partisan agreement on just this point.
The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, promised this week to increase the humanitarian intake to 20,000 within three years of forming a government. The Greens issued a press release yesterday titled ''We Can Save Lives From Today'' proposing much the same thing.
Just last month, the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, told the International Association of Refugee Law Judges of his desire to progressively increase the humanitarian program to 20,000. As for why he had not already done this, Bowen cited budget constraints. Every additional 1000 humanitarian places would cost the budget $216 million. Increasing it to 20,000 would cost about $1.35 billion over the first four years.
And so it comes to this: what price asylum seekers' lives?
It's time for politicians to bite the bullet and agree to increase Australia's humanitarian intake. As a rich nation with low public debt and so much to gain from migration we cannot afford not to do so. That politicians can agree on this central point and continue to squabble among themselves is not only deeply shameful, but the ultimate sign of the deep dysfunction that prevails in our nation's Parliament.
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